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Pornography Beyond Feminism.

Bernard Arcand, a French-Canadian anthropologist, has written a path-breaking book on pornography. He sets out to explain why it exists in its present form rather than enter the debate as to whether it should exist. In the process he looks skeptically and critically at current developments, the nature of research into the topic, its history, changing views not only in the Western world but in India as well, and its changing forms.

Particularly valuable from my point of view is his discussion of Women Against Pornography, which he sees as a sort of last-ditch attempt to unite the ever-diverging feminist movement at the lowest common denominator. The effort, he argues, has, failed for a variety of reasons, one of which is the growing appeal of pornography to women themselves. Moreover the fundamental premise of the debate posed such different readings not only on what was meant by pornography but what was encompassed in the terms feminity and masculinity that ultimately it was impossible to have unanimity. Though the cause is still being advocated by individuals such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, their arguments depend less upon reason than personal rage. Violence, sexism, and sexuality are three different realities: many acts of violence have nothing to do with sexism; sexism itself is not limited to matters of sex, and it is not necessarily violent; and it is at least conceivable to show sex without violence or sexism.

At the same time, Arcand is critical of those who have done research into pornography on either side of the issue, and his examination of the studies does not speak well for the current social science research into the topic. He examines some basic factors involved in pornography, such as standards of modesty, the sources of rage, imaginary inversions, masturbation, whom to protect from pornography--all with the same detached critical view. He finds no link between criminal sexual behavior and pornography, although he also finds that much pornography promotes an infantile, if not dehumanizing, model of sexuality.

His final chapter is devoted to the Sherente myth of the jaguar and the anteater, and it is here that his choice of title for the book becomes clear. The Sherente, a Brazilian tribe, visualize life as a contest between two equally strong animals: the jaguar (symbol of sex and reproduction but also of mortality and danger) and the anteater, an asocial creature who in the myth also represents immortality. The Sherente ultimately picked the jaguar as their model, choosing to accept uncertainty, live well, and die. They came to believe that a long life or prolonged life, perhaps even eternal life, the way of the anteater, is only possible in the form of a minimal existence. The only way to overcome death is through reproduction, and this is why the jaguar is obsessed with sex while the anteater is not. This does not mean that the Sherente repress their longing for the model of the anteater--to live comfortably in a protected and cozy isolation that allows one to escape from traditional social constraints--but they realize it is not possible.

The way of the anteater is seen by Arcand to be symbolic of pornography, and he emphasizes that while the only real choice in life is to follow the path of the jaguar, it does not mean that the fantasy allowed by pornography should disappear. Instead, we can enter into the closed universe of pornographic fantasy, but only if we also accept the fact that such an escape is one of lies and limitations, and recognize that there is real life outside the fantasy. In short, he concludes it is not wrong to indulge in one's fantasy. The danger is to live in fantasy as a retreat from life itself.

Vern L. Bullough, noted author on human sexuality, is professor of history at California State University at Northridge.
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Author:Bullough, Vern L.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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